Large content projects involve lots of content creation, be that content in the form of words, images, or videos in a relatively short time. Is such a project on your road map, but you’re not sure where to get started? Or maybe you work in a business that produces only small amounts of content, but you’ve always wondered what goes into erecting the girders of large content production projects. I’ve worked on my share of large-scale projects. Think writing 1.6 million words in 12 weeks, auditing 3,000 URLs in 50 days, and updating 910 hotel websites weekly. It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always easy, but it is definitely doable and – dare I say – even enjoyable if done correctly.
Operationally, there are a lot of moving parts to consider when setting up a large-scale content production team. The larger the project, the more opportunities exist for Murphy’s law – what can go wrong will go wrong – to show itself. It’s important that you take the time to properly lay the foundation to guide and support a great team of content producers before beginning your content production. Although this post primarily focuses on the production of textual content, the principles can easily apply to other content forms, including images and videos. Similarly, many of the core principles can apply to smaller production teams.
1. Properly vet content producers
The content is only as good as the people who create it. It is critical that you pinpoint people who are creative yet task-oriented to complete the job by deadline according to your specifications. Evaluate experience and ability in light of the available budget. One main factor that could affect cost and quality is the type of writer you need – a generalist who is an all-around good writer with a broad base of experience who can do research to educate herself and write for a lay audience, or a true expert who is deeply knowledgeable on a subject and can really explain the nuances or cutting-edge issues for a specialized audience.
Some people assume that writers and editors are interchangeable, but this is not the case. You need a team where each role – from writer to project manager – has specific skills. With any writing, editing, or proofreading role, you want to ensure that candidates have experience, employ proper grammar and punctuation, and can share a portfolio of their work. However, you can’t stop there. Here are some additional standout qualities unique to each position:
- Creativity in brainstorming ideas and giving a fresh perspective
- Quick and efficient research skills
- Accurate and interesting work
- Proven ability to coach and lead small teams
- Willingness to provide feedback in a positive manner
- Ability to balance the big-picture focus and organization of the article while still attending to small but important grammatical details
- Willingness to daringly reorganize items and/or cut items
When vetting writers and editors, we often ask them to complete a writing-and-editing test in addition to providing work samples. These tests usually yield more accurate results because they require on-the-spot creation with the provided subject matter. This small time investment by writer or editor candidates is usually worth it when they want to acquire a large amount of work from you. However, don’t rely strictly on the test. We’ve found that some highly specialized writers may have a wealth of information to share, but also may need a strong editor.
- Attention to detail and organization
- Ability to stick to proofreading and not rewrite a piece or edit for content (it’s harder than it sounds)
- Experience guiding teams through content creation projects
- Workflow mapping and editorial calendar creation experience
- Familiarity with relevant technology
- Proven ability to juggle many different items at once
- Ability to communicate and answer questions
- Capability to coach, teach, and lead teams
- Fearlessness in pruning non-performers from the team
- Attention to detail and organization
- Proven writing and editing experience
2. Develop a content style guide
Create a content style guide that is shareable with both your client and contractors/employees. The style guide should not be about how to do it (see No. 3 on training materials for that), but rather a what-to-produce document. Style guides often offer the guidelines on format, logo size, logo color, font type, etc. A content style guide certainly can include those elements, but it also focuses on the vision of the content, including:
- Target audience
- Strategic objectives
- Tone, voice, and style
- Samples of approved work
- Examples of pieces that don’t make the cut (sometimes these are even more helpful than approved pieces)
- Examples of tactical items such as headline format, meta data, and specific grammar and usage rules
3. Develop training materials
The better your training materials are, the less time you will spend providing feedback and revisions, and the happier your client will be with the end product. Create a detailed training manual and instructional videos that should be the ultimate reference guide for the project. The manual should be required reading for all contractors and employees working on the project. Focus on:
- Audience: Address new-to-the-project contractors or employees; don’t make knowledge-based assumptions.
- Pathways: Write for multiple roles (e.g., writers, editors, proofers, project managers).
- Process: Clearly spell out workflow and who does what when.
- Checklists: Provide role-specific checklists and focus on the most important items each role must perform.
- Samples: Provide several samples of quality work.
- Screenshots: Provide lots of screenshots to illustrate instructions; pictures are easier to digest and remember.
- Table of contents: Provide organization and easy access.
- Appendix: Provide further detail if needed.
Instructional videos are hugely useful in training large teams; they distill the information in the training guides into quickly digestible image and sound bites. Videos don’t have to be super polished as they are meant as internal resources to help content producers catch the vision for the project and understand the ground rules. You can use inexpensive software like Camtasia, KnowledgeVision or Adobe Voice to create helpful training videos. Create a series of four- to five-minute videos that focus on specific topics or specific roles (e.g., writer, editor, proofreader).
4. Establish clear deadlines, chain of command, and workflow
Make sure each contractor or employee is provided with clear assignments and deadlines, and understands the importance of meeting those deadlines. Clearly state ramifications if deadlines are missed. Each person on the project should have a direct supervisor to whom he can go with questions, problems, emergencies, etc. Limit the number of people reporting to each supervisor so the project stays manageable. The bigger the project, the more small teams you need to keep production chugging along. Keys to a smoothly running project:
- Content management system: Use an easy-to-understand and constantly accessible online tool (your own CMS or Google Drive) to provide access to assignments and deadlines.
- Communicate: Provide updates when assignments or deadlines change. Setting expectations early and reminding often are key.
- Workflow: Make sure all roles know when and how to share their work with the next person to work on the content. Map a crystal-clear workflow (and include in your training documentation).
5. Provide feedback regularly
It’s important to provide feedback to writers and editors early in the process. Put a team system in place so every writer and editor’s work is reviewed promptly and revisions are guided and double-checked. This prevents the log-jam effect wherein writers are toiling away on their third or fourth piece only to be told their first piece was done incorrectly. They have to go back and revise all the pieces. It’s much easier to revise one piece first and then do the rest correctly than it is to revise three or four pieces and still produce pieces five and six to stay on schedule.
Project managers or senior editors should coach new writers and editors through the process, providing clear and specific feedback about ways their work is making or missing the mark (remember, positive feedback can be just as helpful as critical feedback). Project managers should actively look for:
- Dead weight: There are some poor or non-performers in every large-scale project. Set criteria in advance for what dead weight means to your project and be prepared to make cuts accordingly. Criteria could include:
o Number of revision requests by the editor or project manager
o Number of mistakes in the copy
o Number of missed deadlines
- Shining stars: There will always be people who are very good at the project and there might be some who can advance to new levels of value. These can include:
o Writers who might make good editors
o Writers or editors who might make good senior editors or project managers
o Contractors who might work great for future or other projects going on within your company
Finally, quality assurance should be a continual part of the process. Don’t assume that once everyone’s been vetted, instructed, reviewed, and coached that production will stay top shelf. That opens the door for Murphy’s law. Stay vigilant, performing random quality assurance checks on all work at various stages – writing, editing, and proofreading.
Large-scale content production is a complicated business, but organization and pre-game planning can make the difference between success and failure. There are hiccups in every project, but by following these five steps, you will be well on your way to setting up a top-notch content production team.
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